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JSF Faces Fire Risk: Head Tester

The Pentagon’s head of operational testing and evaluation is "concerned" that a recent decision to remove fuses and fire extinguishers from the Joint Strike Fighter program means more planes may be lost to enemy fire and may increase the risk from fires resulting from fuel leaks and related risks.

Michael Gilmore, director for operational test and evaluation, said in written testimony prepared for the Senate Armed Services Committee that the program's recent removal of "shutoff fuses for engine fueldraulics lines, coupled with the prior removal of dry bay fire extinguishers, has increased the likelihood of aircraft combat losses from ballistic threat induced fires. F-35 live fire testing to date has shown that threat impact into fuel tanks results in sustained fires."

Gilmore noted that the move was approved "as an acceptable system trade to balance weight, cost and risk," but he said, "I remain concerned regarding the aircraft's vulnerability to threat-induced and safety-related fires."

On other testing issues, Gilmore said the program's biggest challenge has been "late delivery of test aircraft and the failure to adjust to that reality by building and resourcing realistic system development and test plans, as well as plans for producing and delivering aircraft."

"As of today, three of 12 flight test aircraft operate at one of the government test centers," Gilmore said in his written testimony. There should have been 10 operating now, with the last two planes "following in the next 90 days. The program office now projects that all 12 of the previously planned developmental flight test aircraft will ferry to test centers by February, 2011. More test aircraft, generated from production lots, are needed to complete block 3 development."

Gilmore also noted that the program's software delivery dates "have recently been extended by more than one year each compared to the plans existing at this time last year." It hasn't made much difference yet because of the late delivery of test aircraft, he said.

Gilmore is also watching one other "critical" issue, "effective orchestration" of the corporate labs, Cooperative Avionics Test Bed and the use of planes for flight tests. "We have yet to see how the process being put in place will cope with multiple events for three different variants operating at two flight test centers," Gilmore said in his prepared testimony.

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